New York, NY – Astoria residents and elected officials are fighting hard to keep one of its last supermarkets open as the landlord for the property readies to knock it down for a Target retail store in October.
“We had a rally sometime last year to make a statement with the community to make them know what was going on,” said Aly Waddy, the secretary-treasurer of UFCW 1500, the union that represents the 75 employees who work at the Key Food Supermarket on Ditmars Boulevard. “It is one of the only real supermarkets that are left in that area.”
The community fears that there will be no full-service supermarket in the northern part of Astoria after several other businesses shuttered, according to Waddy who was impressed by the nearly 150 people that came to show solidarity at last year’s rally.
Waddy doesn’t believe the closure of the Key Food Supermarket located at 22-15 31st St. is a “done deal,” but she is worried about the future of those that she represents if the plan goes through.
“My concern is with when a company like Target comes in, the jobs that they bring in are temporary, they pay minimum wage, they don’t have the level of benefits that we bring in at a UFCW brings in,” she said. “Right now, I think traction was made with the community, but we haven’t made any traction with the Target coming in.”
Despite Target’s many charity endeavors, many of its employees end up working few hours and end up needing to use social services to make ends meet, according to Waddy.
“When we were researching them it was eye-opening and alarming,” Waddy said.
Elected officials, including State Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-East Elmhurst) and Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Long Island City) and Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), helped shine a light on the supermarket closure again last week, as workers showed up to do overtime during the ongoing pandemic.
“Key Food’s employees have gone above and beyond through this crisis, to make sure northern Astoria has access to nutritious food,” Constantinides said. “The only thanks they’ve given is a warning they’ll be out of the job by October — if not sooner. The landlord must work on a short-term solution to keep Key Food serving our community, as well as truly work with them to keep them in northern Astoria.”
Despite the gentrification of Astoria, Key Food has stayed on top of its rent for the 50 years that it has been there, according to CAO Roseann Marabello-Rivera, a second-generation member of Man-Dell Food Stores, the parent company of the supermarket.
“There has been a lot of development there and we are not opposed to the farmer’s markets, but we need to have both a job component and healthy food options from the businesses that come in,” said Waddy. “We want jobs to be sustainable, and right now we are realizing more than ever how jobs in supermarkets are essential.”
Customer service jobs are skilled jobs, according to Waddy. You need skills to be a cashier, to work in produce, to work with dairy, to work with meat and most importantly to work with people.
Marabello-Rivera doesn’t know if there is anything to be done to keep the store open, but will not easily give up.
“They have these permits to knock down the building for over the past year,” said Marabello-Rivera, who doesn’t understand how a three-story Target would get a permit to be in that predominantly residential area. “A large development requires off-street loading and parking. They were granted waivers from the Dept. of Buildings so they can avoid these regulations.”
Marabello-Rivera wants an analysis of the project by the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals to address the issues of traffic, congestion and safety.
“The congestion that would be created with a project like this, especially in light of a pandemic, is clearly not in the best interest of the health and welfare of the Astoria community,” said Marabello-Rivera.
The owner of Jenel Real Estate and A&H Acquisitions, the landlord of Key Food, had not even bothered to come to the negotiation table or reach out to Man-Dell Food Stores’ lawyers to renew the lease, according to Marabello-Rivera, a 25-year veteran at the company who worked there after her father, one of the initial people to work there in the 1970s, retired.
“We paid our rent through the pandemic unlike their other tenants who shuttered,” added Marabello-Rivera. “We know everybody in the community – especially in a pandemic like this, we served the community during the pandemic, we’ve never closed and been at this location for a long time and we were able to feed everybody in Astoria.”
The only other full-service supermarket Marabello-Rivera is aware of is their other Key Food, which is on the other side of Astoria on Astoria Boulevard.
The Queens neighborhood had an estimated population of 120,791 residents in 2018, according to the American Community Survey. It is nearly four miles long.
“We serve about a little under 20,000 a week,” said Marabello-Rivera. “We want to stay at that location and be able to serve the community as we have.”